If you read one book in your life, make it The Myth of Normal. That’s what I started telling people after I devoured the 500+ page book in under a week. The author, Gabor Maté, is a Canadian physician who specializes in covering addiction, stress, and childhood development. He’s written multiple bestselling books on these topics, but his new title has even captured the attention of the TikTok universe. So what’s so special about this book?
In The Myth of Normal, Gabor Maté addresses society’s newfound obsession with wellness, but then questions whether we as a society are, in fact, well. Because while it’s easy to spend money on the latest health trends, are they actually helping us become healthier? This book goes on a journey breaking down what we get wrong about wellness and how different factors, such as trauma, society, childhood development, and addiction, all play a role in our overall health. I’ve read a lot of health and wellness books, but I walked away from this book with what felt like never-before-heard insights on how to live a healthier life. In case you don’t want to read all 500 pages, I broke down my biggest takeaways below.
1. Be your own health advocate
In the book, Dr. Maté discusses western medical practices and how there can be a “power hierarchy that casts physicians as the exalted experts and patients as the passive recipients of care.” Doctors are experts in their fields for a reason, and we seek specialists out for answers as to why our bodies are sick, but it’s important to remember that no one knows your body better than you do. Doctors are busy people with a full roster of patients, and sometimes all we get is 15 minutes to explain our concerns, which (more often than not) isn’t enough time to consider and discuss all the different factors that may be leading to your symptoms. In my own diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, it took multiple visits to different doctors and many rounds of tests before I was diagnosed, which probably could have been done sooner if I had been a better advocate for my body. The lesson I took away here is that you have to feel comfortable with your diagnosis and care, your body relies on you to speak up for it, and there’s never any harm in seeking a second opinion.
2. Prioritize healthy relationships
I’m sure we can all think of someone in our lives who has left us feeling drained, bad about ourselves, or unhappy. On the other hand, there are people in our lives who bring us joy, make us laugh, and lift us up. News flash: Both types of people affect our health. Dr. Maté shares how our emotions have a direct impact on our nervous system, which is especially true for intimate relationships and what’s known as interpersonal biology. Translation: The closer we are to someone, the more our physiology interacts with theirs.
One study showed that married people have lower rates of mortality than their age-matched single contemporaries. However, unhappily married people were worse off in well-being than unmarried people, according to another study shared. Now should we all be running off to get married for better health? Probably not. What this study brings to light is the effect of positive relationships. It shows why we should prioritize the people in our lives who make us feel good and find ways to let go of the ones who don’t or no longer serve our well-being.
3. Learn to regulate your emotions
No one likes to feel pain if we can help it. For this reason, we often learn to repress emotions or block them out with coping mechanisms, such as work, watching TV, or eating our favorite foods. If you’re like me, you were never taught as a kid how to process emotions in a healthy way. Sadly, it’s just not something that was on the school curriculum. Fortunately, it’s becoming more widely understood that regulating emotions is healthy. Even anger can lead to blind rage or resentment when suppressed. Instead of burying our emotions and carrying them around with us, releasing them through practices such as journaling, therapy, or talking to a trusted friend can help us build a new pathway to better health (both emotional and physical).
4. Mental health is equally as important as physical health
The idea that the mind and body are connected is nothing new. However, Dr. Maté points out that society still tends to separate the two. How often does your doctor ask about your childhood traumas, your relationship with your parents, your degree of loneliness, your job satisfaction, and how you feel about yourself when you go in for a check-up? It’s most often believed that you see your therapist for those issues and your doctor only has to do with the body, even though the body and mind are directly linked and directly impact one another. This new study of science is called psychoneuroimmunology, and it maps the pathways of mind-body unity. Taking care of our mental health can often be put on the back burner, but learning to prioritize it in the same way we do our physical health is beneficial to the body as a whole.
5. Live authentically
Dr. Maté defines authenticity as “the quality of being true to oneself, and the capacity to shape one’s own life from a deep knowledge of that self.” In other words, as long as we are consistently expressing our emotions and feel safe when we do, we are living an authentic life. But we struggle to live an authentic life when we choose to repress our emotions and do so often enough that it becomes unrecognizable.
This book sheds light on how stress, including the stress of self-suppression, may disturb our physiology, including the immune system. If we are repressing our true feelings and emotions, we’re disarming our bodies’ ability to protect us from stress. If you are someone who feels like they struggle to live authentically, working with the help of a professional like a therapist to pinpoint those moments can be an extremely helpful way to a path of authentic living.
6. Find healthy ways to manage stress
Believe it or not, stress is actually a vital part of our survival, but there are two types of stress: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is what happens when we feel an immediate threat, maybe when walking home alone at night with a stranger lurking close by. It’s healthy to feel that sort of stress as it alerts the body to keep us safe. But unrelieved stress is ongoing, and unless we find ways to relieve that stress, it can lead to depression, chronic inflammation in the body, an unhealthy immune system, and many other ailments.
A 2012 study from Harvard Medical School showed that women with a high job strain were 67% more likely to experience a heart attack than women in less stressful jobs. Dr. Maté has written a whole other book on the effects of stress on the body entitled, “When The Body Says No: The Hidden Cost of Stress,” which emphasizes how if we don’t find healthy ways to manage chronic stress, it can lead to more serious health concerns. Some healthy ways to deal with stress can include exercise, meditation, therapy, connecting with your community, and unwinding with hobbies that bring you joy.